La Belle au Bois Dormant

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Here is Bellamont Forest, County Cavan which can lay claim to being the most beautiful house in Ireland. Certainly its situation is unparalleled, since the building sits on a rise at the end of a mile-long drive, the ground to either side dropping to lakes, the world beyond screened by dense woodland. Bellamont is an unexpected delight, hidden from view until one rounds the last turn of the drive and sees the house ahead.
In purest Palladian style and looking like a villa in the Veneto, Bellamont is believed to have been designed c.1725-30 by the pre-eminent architect then working in Ireland, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Dublin (now the Bank of Ireland), and a number of since-lost country houses such as Desart Court, County Kilkenny and Summerhill, County Meath. Pearce was a cousin of Bellamont’s builder Thomas Coote, a Lord Justice of the King’s Bench. The Cootes had come to Ireland at the start of the 17th century and prospered so well that within 100 years their various descendants owned estates throughout the country. Ballyfin, County Laois which has recently undergone a superlative restoration was another Coote property.

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The appeal of Bellamont lies in its exquisite simplicity, beginning with an exterior which is of mellow red brick with stone window dressings. Of two storeys over a raised rusticated basement, the front is dominated by a full-height limestone portico reached by a broad flight of steps. The imposing effect is achieved by the most effortless means and using the plainest materials, but there can be no doubt that Bellamont was always intended to impress. The Portland stone-flagged entrance hall, with its coved ceiling and pairs of flanking doors, sets the tone for what is follow.
While there are small rooms immediately to right and left, the latter traditionally used as a cosy winter library, the main reception areas lie to the rear of the building, a sequence of drawing room, saloon and dining room which retain their 18th century decoration including the chimneypieces. The first of these is believed to have once been a series of rooms, but following a fire in 1760 acquired its present form including the elaborate recessed ceiling which was probably intended to complement that in the dining room on the other side of the saloon. The walls of this central room contain contain stucco panels once filled with family portraits, the best-known of which – painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 and showing the Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont resplendent in his robes as a Knight of Bath – now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.

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The aforementioned Earldom of Bellamont was a second creation of the title for a member of the family. Evidently an ostentatious and pompous man – seemingly he insisted on making his maiden speech in the House of Lords in French, to the bemusement of his fellow peers – Lord Bellamont can at least be credited with having the good taste to enhance the house built by his grandfather. He married a daughter of the first Duke of Leinster and by her had four daughters and just one son who died in Toulouse at the age of 12, his body being brought back to Bellamont to lie for three days on the upper landing before burial in the family vault.
As a result of there being no legitimate heir, the earldom again lapsed on Lord Bellamont’s death in 1800. However, despite being seriously wounded in the groin during a duel with Lord Townshend, he managed to have at least 16 offsring out of wedlock by four different women, and one of these sons, also called Charles Coote, inherited Bellamont Forest. Ultimately it was sold out of the family in the middle of the 19th century and bought by the Smiths (later Dorman-Smiths), one of whom Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith served in the British army during both the First and Second World Wars after which, having changed his surname to O’Gowan, he became involved with the IRA.

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In 1987 Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote, an Australian interior designer whose family had emigrated from Ireland at the start of the last century. John dearly loved the house and undertook to restore it to a pristine condition, keeping the decoration spare so that the beauty of the rooms’ architecture would be more apparent. There was never a great deal of furniture, just a few large pieces he had specifically made and which were inspired by Georgian workmanship. In revealing the building’s purity he not only demonstrated the splendid taste of Pearce but his own also, since it would have been tempting to intervene in the interiors.
Those interiors served wonderfully for entertaining, which John did frequently. I have been to a great many terrific parties at Bellamont, and even hosted a few there, one of which – a birthday dinner for 30 – is thankfully uncommemorated by any photographs. But there are ample souvenirs and joyous memories of John’s own sundry social gatherings, such as the thé dansants he loved to throw, when a 16-piece orchestra would play in the saloon and Jack Leslie would demonstrate how to dance the Black Bottom. The last great party at Bellamont took place during the summer of 2009 to mark John’s 60th birthday and was spectacular even by his standards, with drinks in the lower gardens followed by dinner and dancing outdoors in the balmy air.
The following year John was obliged to put Bellamont Forest up for sale, and thereafter he rarely visited the place. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of his death, which happened unexpectedly while he was working in Indonesia. He is still sorely mourned by all of us who knew him in Ireland. Meanwhile Bellamont slumbers, awaiting a new owner who will kiss the place back to life; there is talk now of an auction in March. One prays that whoever next assumes responsibility for Bellamont will bring to the house the same flair and fun as did John Coote for so many years.

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All photographs by René Kramers (http://www.reneez.com/)

37 comments on “La Belle au Bois Dormant

  1. Rebecca W White says:

    Sadly the busts that occupied the front hall since the house was built have now gone.

  2. what an absolutely stunning house. Magical really.

  3. Andrew Fraser says:

    The house has gone from the Knight Frank website. Has it been sold?

  4. Perhaps the offer wasn’t deemed good enough??

  5. Christine Moores says:

    A beautiful building and estate. My grandparents lived in the Gate Lodge and raised my Mother and her siblings on the estate. It would be a tradgedy if it was left to fall in disrepair

    • How very interesting. Do you have any photographs of the gate lodge or house from that time? If so, I should dearly love to see them.
      Thanks for your interest, it’s much appreciated.

      • Christine Moores says:

        Further to my above post from March 2013, I am visiting Cootehill in April 2015 and will be accompanied by the last of the McGahan siblings raised in the Gate Lodge of Bellamont. My Uncle is now in his mid 80’s and so excited to be “going home”. This question is very, very long shot but do you know who I would need to approach to try to gain access to the Gate Lodge so my Uncle ” could have his last look at home”?
        Due to his health the family feel he may not be well enough to visit again.

      • Thank you for getting in touch. I shall try to find out what is the current scenario in the coming days. If you would care to contact me at the end of this week/beginning of next I may have more information for you then.

      • Christine Moores says:

        Thank you for looking into the current scenario regarding access to the Gate Lodge. I was wondering if any further information has become available?

      • My apologies, I have been unable to find out anything further. I shall be away for several weeks, so if this matter can wait till the end of the month, I can try asking someone about it then…

      • Christine Moores says:

        Good morning, I have noted from the last two comments that Bellamont is back up for sale. Good news I think, hoping that an early sale will stop any further deterioration of this beautiful building. Perhaps you could advise me of the agent dealing with the sale to enable me to approach them to hopefully gain access to The Gate Lodge on my forthcoming visit.

  6. richard wells says:

    Do you know who is handling of the auction?

  7. Alan Duggan says:

    I was wondering if anyone had any update on the status of this property, I have followed it for years and wonder if it will be coming back on the market anytime so in 2014, if anyone has any information at all please email me aduggan@hammondre.com

    Thank you in advance for any help with this , my best Alan.

  8. Colleen Newton says:

    I was so sad when I heard that John Coote had died. For many years we were in touch often by phone and email, swapping family history. Our family descends from the Earl of Bellamont, through his illegitimate son, Charles Coote, who married Louisa Dawson. One of their sons, Dawson Richard Coote, had illegitimate twin daughters to an Elizabeth Daly. The girls left Ireland for New Zealand, early 1860s. John told me that Bellamont House was in trust for his son Angus. When Angus told his father he didn’t want it and was going back to Australia to live, I believe John died of a broken heart.

  9. Moderator says:

    Having grown up in Bellamont House during the 1980s, I’m fairly certain those busts did not precede the house, but were modelled by the early Cootes themselves. The real question is: where did they go?

  10. Reblogged this on johnsonjeanne and commented:
    Incredible History thank you for I have an insatiable appetite for History and Art.

  11. Colleen Newton says:

    I would hate to see my ancestral home fall into disrepair after all of John’s love and hard work.

  12. Graham Ruthven says:

    Can you tell me what state of repair the house is in now please?

    • Thank you for making contact. I have not been in the house since last summer, so cannot tell you how it has survived the winter months (albeit they were relatively mild this year). When last there, Bellamont was suffering from damp and the plaster in some of the rooms looked problematic, but nothing that care and money could not resolve. If I have the opportunity to look at it again I shall report further.

  13. Yes, the various legal issues appear to have been resolved and hence the place can be offered for sale. Start looking for a possible buyer…

  14. winnie says:

    Here is a link to some very beautiful photographs from the National Library exhibition ‘Power and Privilege: The Big House in Ireland’, there are two of Bellamont Forest taken in 1870.
    I notice on the sale photographs that the polemic busts have been returned!

  15. Nicholas De Pierrepont says:

    who ever bought bellamont house?

  16. rebeccag says:

    it breaks my heart a little (me not being there)

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